On the Verge: Costs and Tradeoffs Facing Community College Students

On the Verge: Costs and Tradeoffs Facing Community College Students

Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) / April 2016

Even the most devoted and prepared college students can be slowed or stopped in their tracks by financial obstacles. Whether the challenges are covering basic needs like food or housing, or handling unexpected financial obligations like car repairs or medical bills, there is a growing body of research showing that students’ ability to pay for non-tuition costs can make or break their academic career. This is particularly true at community colleges, where low-income students commonly enroll in hopes of receiving an affordable education, and where low tuition is too often misunderstood to mean low total cost. It is true even in California where community college tuition is the lowest in the nation and waived entirely for students with financial need.

In 2015, TICAS partnered with 22 California community colleges (CCCs) to survey students on their expenses, their aid, and the choices they make when their resources do not stretch far enough. About 12,000 students responded from across the state, and more than 4,400 shared the personal stories that form the backbone of this report.

These stories powerfully illustrate that financial costs and challenges go well beyond tuition for lower income students who want to stay in school and succeed. All too often, they just cannot afford to, even at the nation’s lowest tuition colleges. Consistent with the findings from a growing body of research, the themes that emerge from students’ experiences expose the financial realities that run counter to common assumptions about community college affordability and what students need to succeed.